Would you ever suspect that those seemingly harmless over-the-counter pills for aches and pains were wrecking your digestive system? If you’ve got gluten sensitivity, ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatory drugs can be a contributing factor to gluten sensitivity while tending to sore muscles, sprains or backaches.
What’s even more surprising — if the fact that anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen have this type of side effect wasn’t enough — is that the issues with these drugs are well known. The problem is that they’re generally recognized as safe by consumers like you and I because they’re sold everywhere, many without a prescription. Unless you are sensitive to them or take too many (which can lead to an ulcer), you’ve probably assumed they’re relatively harmless if not helpful, especially after a really challenging workout or for managing chronic pain.
Got Gluten Sensitivity? Ibuprofen isn’t Your Friend
If you have gluten sensitivity (and especially if you’ve got even more food sensitivities beyond gluten), stop taking anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen. Not only are they helping to maintain your current gut issues, but they could be contributing to even more problems (especially if you’re list of sensitivities is growing!). And if you’re reading this article and you don’t have issues with gluten, it is possible that taking these drugs long-term could lead you down this exact road.
To get a medical take on why the long-term view matters in this case, I reached out to Kelly Brogan, MD who isn’t a fan of anti-inflammatory drugs. She believes that the long-term ramifications of taking these drugs present those taking them with a serious conundrum because the damage goes beyond your gut and can impact your cells’ ability to produce energy in the mitochondria as well as contributing to autoimmune issues beyond gluten sensitivity.
Taking these drugs “increases intestinal permeability allowing for [food particles] to access the immune system which set off autoimmune and inflammatory processes,” reasons Dr. Brogan who describes the use of these drugs generally as suppressing symptoms rather than getting to the root cause of the pain.
I first discovered this problem with anti-inflammatory drugs last year while doing research for a paper. There are numerous papers and studies that anyone can search for on PubMed which document the damage that these drugs do. Whether it’s athletes looking to decrease post-training “exercise-induced pain”, patients with liver issues, those struggling with Rheumatoid Arthritis, and pretty much everyone else out there — will experience an increase in intestinal permeability taking these drugs.
The warnings for these drugs do list certain gastrointestinal issues such as developing ulcers in the upper GI track (such as your stomach), but they don’t impress upon the end user that their gut could become leaky. However in the grand scheme of things, it’s questionable how concerned “modern medicine” is with proteins sneaking through the gut wall. Oh wait… that’s what happens to people like you and me who have gluten sensitivity and yet it’s still not widely accepted that gluten sensitivity is a real health problem.
Aside from Ibuprofen, Here’s What Else to Avoid
To ensure you’ve not merely swapped out one gut-damaging drug for another, let’s quickly identify what anti-inflammatory drugs are.
According to WebMD, anti-inflammatory drugs are actually part of a family of drugs known as NSAIDs which stands for Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs. They are “…pain reliever[s] to make the hurt go away” and that’s often how they are used.
Chronic back pain? Nagging shoulder or knee issues? Took a nasty fall? Worked out too hard at the gym?
All are reasons why you might take an NSAID. Many are available as over-the-counter medications, while a handful must be purchased with a prescription.
Here is a list of NSAID drugs:
- Advil / Motrin (generic is ibuprofen)
- Aleve (generic is naproxen sodium)
- Naprosyn / Anaprox (generic is naproxen)
- Lodine (generic is etodolac)
- Nalfon (generic is fenoprofen)
- Daypro (generic is oxaprozin)
- Ansaid (generic is flurbiprofen)
- Cambia / Cataflam / Voltaren (generic is diclofenac)
- COX-2 Inhibitor
Excederin Migraine is also an issue because it contains aspirin. The only caveat is that aspirin may not produce the same amount of damage as the other drugs listed here. Obviously you should always consult with your doctor or medical practitioner before stopping prescribed medications. They may also have suggestions for you of safe alternatives based on your own specific needs.
How NSAIDs Damage Your Gut
As was stated on the WebMD page regarding NSAID drugs, they “…reduce the level of certain chemicals called prostaglandins that are involved in inflammation.” This statement is the key reason behind why NSAID drugs like ibuprofen can damage your gut.
Amy Myers, MD, a functional medicine doctor specializing in treating Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS) explained that the disruption of the prostaglandins due to NSAID use is a major contributing factor. If the gut is continually assaulted by substances such as NSAIDs, you can absolutely and undoubtedly end up with more sensitivities to an increasing number of foods.
“If you’re going to have a chance at healing your gut, you’ve definitely got to stop taking NSAIDs,” states Dr. Myers who has found the gut a critical place to begin to deal not only with gluten sensitivity, but also in treating other autoimmune issues.
To add insult to injury, Dr. Brogan adds one final nail in the NSAID coffin lid by pointing out that changes in gut permeability could happen “within 3 to 6 months” and that “…mucosal prostaglandin inhibition is at the root of damage to gastric and intestinal lining.”
At this point, you’re probably wondering what you could use as a substitute for the go-to NSAIDs. Again, you should check with your doctor or medical practitioner before stopping any medication that was prescribed to you. They may also know of some alternatives that do not have contribute to gut permeability.
One alternative is Tylenol. Though it might help with pain, it doesn’t work for inflammation and has it’s own laundry list of potential issues as well. Every prescription bottle comes with a list of potential side effects which is worth reading.
As for the more alternative options — Tumeric and curcumin are powerful anti-inflammatory spices which can easily be added to food or taken in capsules. I’ve also used Arnica to relieve aches and pains. Other options can be found here in this article on alternatives. You could also consider acupuncture, CranialSacral therapy, massage, nutritional therapy and other options.
Plus, you’ve got to address your gut issues. Just stopping these medications won’t automatically reverse the leakiness trend. Amy Myers offer a really neat protocol for healing Leaky Gut that you can do on your own to hopefully see results faster.
So if you’ve been using NSAIDs daily or for a whenever those aches and pains sneak up on you, it’s time to break up. Either try something else to help you cope with discomfort or figure out and deal with what the real problem is behind the pain.
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wow! this is quite the eye-opening piece of information!!! I have consumed enormous amounts of advil over the years due to the pain caused by gluten damage… round and round it goes!
Hi Jen, I have found the truth in this article to be very, very true in my life. Due to arthritis, I have been taking NSAIDs for years…and only realized that it was arthritis in the last year. Along with the arthritis, I now seem to be sensitive to just about every food you can imagine. Obviously, I’m never taking NSAIDs again. Do you have any suggestions for managing chronic pain?
Hi Dan! As you probably know, it’s really important that you work on healing your gut. That is critical. As for the pain, have you tried looking more toward turmeric and curcumin? I know it might sound weird, but I add turmeric to my daily smoothies now (I was taking an anti-inflammatory supplement that was primary turmeric some time ago and it did help. Also, food sensitivities can exacerbate symptoms … like joint pain… if you’re sensitive to a lot, it may be difficult to pin down exactly what could contribute to the issue, but I would imagine that by working on your gut and reducing systemic inflammation, pain may possibly be reduced.
Thank you, Jen! I remembered that I have some turmeric in my cabinet, so I’ll start taking that again. My primary focus right now is definitely on healing my gut. I’m making bone broth all the time and have been checking into the SIBO and AIP diets. I’ll likely be doing a combination of both. Pretty restrictive, but if I can make progress, it will be totally worth it!
Re: Nsaids causes gluten sensitivity… In 1993, I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel, then in 1995 fms. I have been prescribed many of the drugs on your list. Ibuprofen I was on the longest… 800mg a couple times a day for at least 2-3 years, then Nexus for ten years. Got c-dif for the first time in 2005, again in 2010. Diagnosed with gluten-sensitivity in 2010. I have always felt like these were related issues. Now your article along with other research I have read confirms that. You do a good service. Keep up the good work!
Nexium not Nexus, sorry… Smart phones, you know.!
I have severe cramps during my period and Ibuprofen is the only thing that relieves them. So what is the alternative when you have a headache or something like that?
You could look for something more natural… there are definitely remedies out there that help women struggling with severe cramps. You may also want to look further into your situation and see if other foods could be causing issues or an imbalance of some sort. To echo the words from both doctors interviewed in the article, it’s best to look for the root cause of the issue.
Thanks Jennifer. I have been to several doctors, naturopaths, did several exams and nobody was able to determine the cause of my cramps so that’s why I rely on the pain killers. I tried natural supplements as well and so far I was not able to find anything that works or make the pain more manageable.
Thank you! I am 11 days post c section and was taking Motrin every 6 hrs for pain for at lease 9 days and now I’m bloated and uncomfortable in my gut. I had also stopped taking my probiotics the day of delivery. Do you know the fastest way to recover from this upset tummy? I’m not gluten sensitive but I can’t help but think 9 days of Motrin is the culprit. Thanks!
Perhaps ask your doctor if you can restart your probiotics and I’m always a big fan of broth and simple foods when my digestive system is upset.
Also, you can check out Dr. Myer’s Leaky Gut Protocol here: http://bit.ly/1otHtY8
As a pharmacist, I can tell you that Tylenol doesn’t help with inflammation. So while it’s a good option for fevers or osteoarthritis, it’s not going to help much with muscular pain. I’m going to try Aspirin instead of the other NSAIDs for when I really need relief. Thank you for the information! I stopped Advil a couple days ago and already notice a significant improvement in how I feel with celiac disease!!
You’re right about that, Kay… Tylenol isn’t anti-inflammatory, however for someone with a headache, it may be the better choice. I would say that this topic opens up the greater conversation about the consequences of commonly used drugs and could help some find answers that they’ve been searching for. Thanks for sharing your experience too! I think others will appreciate hearing what you’ve written especially coming from someone with your job and that you also deal with celiac disease.
This is just crazy stuff to read. Why would a doctor who diagnoses you with celiac disease not look at your list of prescribed meds and not even hint about it? I have NO faith left in the medical world whatsoever. It makes sense that the first half of the past year I saw improvement eating gluten free, but the past 6 months have come to a stand still in improvement. I can’t even tell you how long I’ve been prescribed and taking prescription Mobic. Celiac disease was just the beginning of never ending research and changes in diet. Grrr. But thank you for opening my eyes to this.
You are incredibly welcome, Donna! It’s my pleasure to be able to share this information… I mean.. I’m not happy that this is the case, but I feel really grateful that I can learn about this stuff and share it to help improve your life. Thanks for sharing your story, Donna!
Had not heard this! I was prescribed mega doses of NSAIDS due to endometriosis, then finally many surgeries, prior to also being diagnosed antibody positive and gluten intolerant. GF since 2004. I have other autoimmune issues. And increased food sensitivities. Eye opening! Great advice on alternatives to NSAIDS.
Great article! I especially love the list of alternatives that you gave at the end.
Very informative info thanks for sharing.
I have Celiacs And I happen to be allergic to many of those drugs NSAIDS
I have two disk extrusions from a work injury for over a year now and I take advil pm so I can sleep and then found that Tylenol arthritis works for some pain during the day but obviously not the inflammation. I got diagnosed with celiac disease last dec.. what can I use for night time when the pain flares up really bad?
I became very ill after taking clindamycin for an infected tooth had to have colonoscopy still not diagnosed but was told possible celiac or infection no problems before antibiotic
I am puzzled by your post. You do not present any evidence of a connection between NSAIDs and celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, and I have not found any in the scientific literature. I think it’s important to distinguish speculation from knowledge, especially if it could affect people’s actions.
Ironically, the fact that NSAIDs and alcohol both increase intestinal permeability, but do not trigger celiac disease, is actually evidence that permeability changes are NOT critical for our body’s response to gluten!
Your insert talks about “proteins slipping though your gut’s wall”: do you have any evidence for this, or is this also speculation on your part?
Dr. Olins, I did not say nor claim that NSAIDS trigger celiac. That was not anywhere in this article as there is a clear genetic component to celiac. However the mainstream term for “intestinal permeability” is “leaky gut”. I would suggest you look at the many PubMed papers and studies hyperlinked in this article to learn more about it. It’s a well known phenomenon and many physicians have commended me for this article. To be honest, this article was not the first to be published on this particular topic. If you search google, you’ll find many.
with leaky gut, things can get into your bloodstream, no? things that should not be there? And wouldn’t the body create antibodies against things in the blood stream that aren’t supposed to be there? And if it does, then wouldn’t you have future immune reaction when these substances are seen by the body in the future?
Thank you!!! You answered something that was growing suspiciously in my mind.
I have leaky gut syndrome. I suffer from migraines and I use exedrine for migraine. Does Exedrine contribute to the leaky gut syndrome?
Yes, because it does contain an NSAID.
Replenishing good gut bacteria with fermented probiotics is so important to overall health-especially inflammation.
All my autoimmune problems started after taking NSAIDS one year. I’ve had surgery every year since and I collect a new autoimmune desease every year or two. NSAIDS, especially Aleve give me hives. They’re just not worth it. Taking something for inflammation that inflames your body is insane.
What are some alternatives to help with chronic pain?
Check out the end of the article as there are suggestions there.
Really fascinating article! Thank you for making this so clear. I have been gluten free for 8 years after discovering I was gluten and dairy intolerant in 2008. My problem is that ever since 7th grade I have gotten the most debilitating menstrual cramps every month and could barely function even WITH aleve or ibuprofin and a heating pad. Now I’m nearly 29 years old and still require taking 3-4 aleve for the first couple days of my period. I have tried every possible treatment for my cramps, just shy of surgery. I don’t know what else to do. I feel that I’m in a bind and have to pick between the lesser of the two evils. Prescription drugs are usually addictive and I don’t want to open that door. Are there non-addictive prescription drugs that don’t contribute to leaky gut? I am considering an IUD which is supposed to help with menstrual cramping. It’s my last straw. I would welcome your encouragement and any suggestions you might have!
Hi Rachel, have you tried seeking help with an acupuncturist or someone who is not necessarily following conventional medicine about this issue?
ps. Oh and I should also mention that I have tried all the suggestions that you named…but it didn’t even touch my pain! Last month I was literally crying from how much pain I was in! I work full-time and in order to keep my job I have to take pain meds to be functional! 🙁
Jennifer – This was such a GREAT article! Thanks for sharing the information. I re-posted it on my page and e-mailed it out to many friends and family. I don’t want other people to make the same mistakes that I’ve made with regards to damaging the gut. Keep doing what you are doing! 🙂 Gluten-Free Bebe
Jennifer, great article. Like other commenters here, I’m in the same menstrual cramp dilemma. It seems we aren’t finding any working solutions. The closest I’ve come is hormones, but longterm they created several other problems for me and after trying several variations, my functional practitioner and I decided it was best to not use them. Like the others, we’re talking about pain that leaves me in a ball on the floor. I guess I’m commenting to suggest that this is a road block for many women. I know I need to kick NSAIDS to heal everything (gluten, dairy, soy free for four months, and while it has improved things, I’m not 100%), but I don’t know how to do it and still be a functional member of society every time I have my period.
Hi Jenny, yes I know that some women have issues with their menstrual cycle that only seem to be helped by NSAIDs. I wish that I had a better answer for you. Unfortunately I don’t yet. If something pops up on my radar, I promise that I’ll share. Have you also tried herbs? I don’t think I mentioned it as a option, but it may be worth it to consider seeing an herbalist.
I have used Zyflamend for an anti-inflammatory, have you researched this at all? Any idea if it is much safer than Ibuprofen?
Hi Bethany, I’ve not. I see that it’s an herbal blend. Do you find that it’s helpful?
Do you know if topical Voltaren could continue to damage the gut, or is it only when it is consumed orally?
Great question, Kelly! Just looked this up (since I didn’t know the answer) and YES, they can. Here’s the info: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a611002.html
I can only take compounded Ibuprofen since OTC Ibuprofen is so chocked full of other additives including corn which I can’t tolerate!
Well there is another possible culprit to the root cause of my Hashimotos’, adrenal fatique, throat nodules and leaky Gut and. Years of extreme pain with adenomyosis and endometriosos (three weeks out of four for most of my adult life) let to lots of Motrin in order to work and function. Sheech! If only I had known…..
Hi , I am sure that overuse of NSAID meds caused my Hashimoto’s. I have started on a gluten, soy and dairy free diet. My problem I have had headaches ever since I was a child , I am now 52. I basically have a headache 3 times in a week, maybe more. A doctor has prescribed LDN (low dose naltrexone 4.5 mg). I am too scared to use it in case I get a headache and have to take NSAID meds only thing that helps and only sometimes. I am currently on 200mg bio-identical progesterone as well. I also use 10 mg tripiline. Please can you advise what to do. I am desperate I am in pain every day if not headache muscle and joint ache. Please help!
That was so interesting, some I knew but a lot I didn’t, I have been adding turmeric to my diet for a long time, also grated ginger. I have always tried to eat a good diet, myself and my children were vegetarians for a long time when they were young. I eat mostly vegetarian diet now, I don’t like what they do to the meat, unless I have my own I prefer to go without. I did have our own animals at one time but had a work related injury and couldn’t use my right arm. I only found out that I was allergic to gluten when I was 40. I am extremely interested in what you are saying.
Thanks so much. I have been taking ibuprofen for about 10 years to help over come headaches and stomach pain caused by gluten. I never knew ingesting ibuprofen could make me even worse